Article published on April 12th, 2014 in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen by Johanna Laurent
Photo © afp. President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, welcomes the Congolese president Denis Sassou Nguesso at the EU-Africa top. Herman Van Rompuy is standing on the side, a little bit reserved

We are closed, stiff, distant and very busy/occupied. According to Colombian expat Paola Campo, making friends with Belgians is a challenging task. Should we feel offended? “Actually we are just well-considered.”

Lots of reactions, from Belgians, expats and the press. The Colombian Paola Campo (33) is submerged with reactions since she has shared her experience with Belgians. “It exploded”, she says laughing. “I really didn’t expect this. For my blog, ‘the Paola Campo Report’ I often write playful/fun articles. When I heard from other expats that they also found it difficult to become friends with Belgians, I decided to write a fun piece about it.”

It’s called ‘Three reasons why you have few Belgian friends”. In the meantime, it is shared in large numbers. “Expats all recognize it, while Belgians like to emphasize that they are not all like that. I know that of course. It just seemed that most Belgians are a closed book. In the same way that Brits are diplomatic and the Dutch are straightforward and direct.”

Colored picture

However you look at it, we can’t completely deny it. Belgians eat fries and drink beer, are not overly enthusiastic about hugging or kissing. Right? “There will be typical things we say and do, but that isn’t researched that specifically anymore”, says culture sociologist Walter Weyts (University of Antwerp).

“Those studies will start with certain assumptions. That is not done nowadays. Because the average Flemish person, who is that? Look at the inhabitants of Antwerp or Brussels: you can’t really speak of a typical Belgian or Flemish nature anymore. Expats create an image of the average Flemish person based on their experiences. That’s a colored image based on individual experiences. For new experiences, it is easy to rely on clichés.”

The typical Belgian does not exist. But claiming that Campo is selling nonsense, is also a bridge too far. “I often teach Dutchmen”, says Weyts. “They truly do not keep their opinion to themselves as often. Our impressions are based on something. There are different scientific approaches to confirm these impressions. From a historic perspective, you could say for example that the Flemish person started to behave like the underdog because we were always governed by others. The idea was: the more we shut up, the more we thrive.”

Chameleons
Denying is difficult. Belgians simply will not enthusiastically hug a stranger as Americans might do. But we don’t need to be ashamed about that. “Some people will call us reserved, but actually we are just thoughtful/considerate”, says Vincent Vermeulen, director of the butler school.

“It is exactly that reservedness and closed attitude that let Belgians to succeed throughout time. We are chameleons in the way we interact with others. I was recently in China. Because of all these protocols, it is not clear what is expected of you beforehand. I consciously positioned myself in a more reserved manner. That way I was certain to take the right attitude. Belgians will always adapt, also regarding languages. That is a quality. Although, appearances aren’t everything. Japanese are known for being very distant. You will never see them show public affection. But that is compensated indoors. Japanese children sleep in the same bed as their mother and father until the age of seven. To compensate that they get little public affection. So it’s not always what you perceive at first glance.”

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